Wisconsin Republicans vote to control virus money

tony evers
Posted at 7:20 AM, Mar 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-24 10:38:40-04

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Senate voted Tuesday to take control of the state’s share of the $1.9 trillion federal coronavirus stimulus package away Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and instead give lawmakers the ability to decide how to spend the estimated $5.7 billion coming for state and local governments.

The GOP-controlled Assembly also passed bills that would prohibit the government and employers from requiring people to be vaccinated for COVID-19. The Assembly also passed a proposal barring the closure of churches due to the pandemic.

The Assembly gave final passage to a bill requiring the governor to submit a plan for when all state employees will be back doing their jobs in offices, rather than from home. Republicans questioned whether state employees were truly working when at home and said at the very least Evers should have a plan for their return.

The debate over a variety of COVID-19 measures showed the deep divisions between lawmakers, with some Republicans questioning the need to be vaccinated while Democrats urged caution in moving too quickly in thinking the pandemic was over.

“The intent behind them seems to be pandering toward the same kind of anti-science, anti-public health position that’s out there at the worst time possible,” said Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, at a news conference before debate began.

Evers has promised to veto the measure giving the Legislature power over how the federal money is spent, and he’s expected to veto the others as well.

The governor has the power under current law to control how Wisconsin’s $5.7 billion share of the federal relief bill will be spent. About $3.2 billion is earmarked for state government, while an additional $2.5 billion is coming to counties and municipalities.

Evers had control of that money, which was spent on a variety of things, including buying protective equipment, aid to small businesses, nursing homes, hospitals, renters, movie theaters and live music venues. Evers has said he plans to take a similar approach with the latest round of funding, pending guidance from the federal government.

The bill passed by the Senate on a party-line vote that is also up in the Assembly would require the governor to submit a plan for spending the money to the Legislature’s Republican-controlled budget committee for approval.

Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach said it made no sense to pass the bill given that Evers plans to veto it.

“So what’s the point?” he said. “It just makes you look like power-grabbing idiots.”

Republicans argued the Legislature should play a role in how it’s spent, just like it did in 2009 when approving how money from the federal stimulus during the Great Recession was spent.

“Unfortunately, it seems like the Democrats want to have a piggy bank where they can choose to give the money with no oversight, no transparency, no ability to judge whether it’s the best decision until after the money is out the door,” Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said before debate began Tuesday.

Evers and other Democrats say giving the Legislature control over the funding would only slow it from helping those in need.

The Assembly passed bills that would prohibit both employers and state and local health officials from mandating COVID-19 vaccinations. Both bills must pass the Senate, which already approved a similar version of the one barring health officials from ordering vaccinations, before the measures go to Evers.

The bill prohibiting government officials from requiring the vaccine passed on a 60-33 vote, with Democratic Reps. Nick Milroy and Sylvia Ortiz-Velez joining all Republicans in support. The other bill that bars employers from mandating the vaccine passed 59-35, with all Republicans in support and Democrats against.

Vos, in arguing for not mandating vaccines, said the “coercive power of the government” should not be used to force people to be vaccinated. Everyone should do their own research and make up their own minds about whether to get it, he said. Vos said he planned to be vaccinated and believed a vast majority of the public would also.

Doctors, public health officials, business leaders and others have all come out against the bills barring the ordering of vaccinations. Supporters include the anti-abortion groups Wisconsin Family Action and Pro-Life Wisconsin as well as the anti-vaccination group Vaccine Choice Wisconsin.

The Assembly passed another bill barring the closure of churches during a pandemic 61-33 with Democratic Reps. Ortiz-Velez and Shelia Stubbs joining all Republicans in support. The Senate previously approved an earlier version of the bill but will have to sign off again on the latest one before it goes to Evers.

More than 25% of people age 16 and over in Wisconsin have received at least one dose of the vaccine, with 15% fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health Services.

Coronavirus in Wisconsin

More data on Wisconsin's vaccination progress here.

Find a vaccination site here.

Check out county-by-county coronavirus case numbers here.

More information: COVID-19 on the Wisconsin DHS website

Latest news and headlines here.